Sun safety tips: How to guard against the sun's damaging UV rays

sunburn protection

We love the sun -- but it doesn't always love us back. In any season of the year there are health consequences to too much sun exposure: eye damage such as cataracts, skin wrinkling and premature aging, immune system suppression, and the biggest one, skin cancer. Over one million Americans are newly diagnosed with skin cancer each year and most of these could have been prevented.

Who is most at-risk for sun burns, skin cancers and other sun related health concerns?

While everyone, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or age can suffer sun related eye and skin damage, you are especially vulnerable if you:

  • spend a lot of time in the sun or have been sunburned.
  • have light-colored skin and hair.
  • blue, green or hazel, eyes.
  • have a history of many moles, freckles or severe burns.
  • spend a lot of time indoors and spend time outdoors only infrequently.
  • have certain autoimmune diseases.
  • are taking medications, vitamins, herbs or certain OTC drugs that increase sensitivity to sunlight.
  • or have a family member with skin cancer.
    are photosensitive (highly sensitive to sunlight)
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The good news is that you can enjoy the sun and still take care of your health by following all or a combination of these tips. Remember, don't rely on any ONE of them to provide full sun protection by itself.

Use sunscreen: The sun's UV rays can damage skin in as little as 15 minutes -- regardless of whether the day is sunny or cloudy sun safety topic (up to 80% of UV rays pass through clouds). So apply one ounce or a full palm of sunscreen (that's enough to cover the average body) to dry skin 20-30 minutes BEFORE going outside. Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 -- the higher the number, the greater the protection is likely to be. And be sure to re-apply if you're out in the sun for more than two hours, and after you swim or do things that make you sweat. Lastly, be mindful of your sunscreen's expiration date. Sunscreens are formulated to remain stable and at full strength for 3 years.

Protect your lips: Just like sunscreen, your lip balm should provide a minimum of SPF 15 protection.

Cover up: Loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants made from tightly woven fabric protect best from UV rays. If you're especially concerned about sun damage, look for clothing that has an SPF factor. At minimum, wear a t-shirt or beach cover-up after swimming.

Hats on to safety: Protect your face, ears, and the back of your neck with a hat that features a brim all the way around. Straw hats with holes that let sunlight through won't do much to block UV rays; a darker-colored hat may help more than a light-colored one.

Wear shades: Sunglasses don't just look cool, they work well to protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts. Wrap-around styles work best because they block rays from leaking in from the sides. Darker shades are not necessarily better. UV protection comes from an invisible chemical applied to the lens and not from the lens shade or darkness. Children need REAL, not toy, sunglasses!

Put time on your side: The hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. daylight savings time are the most dangerous for UV exposure in the continental U.S. During those hours, try to stay in the shade, and be sure to use sunscreen or wear protective clothing.

Be extra careful around water, snow, concrete and glass: All of these reflective surfaces can magnify the strength of damaging UV rays.

Avoid tanning salons: Artificial radiation exposes you to the same dangers as real sun exposure.

No sun for baby: Avoid exposing infants to direct sunlight. Sunscreen should not be applied to infants, 6 months or younger.

Become familiar with your moles, blemishes, freckles, etc., and check your skin monthly for any changes: Pay special attention to face, ears, lips, nose and other often overexposed areas. Be especially watchful for:

protecting yourself from sun UV rays
  • red patches or or pink, red, or white shiny bumps or sores that won't heal. These may be possible signs of basal cell carcinoma skin cancer.
  • dark brown or black mole-like patches with irregular edges may be signs of melanoma skin cancer.

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August 20, 2016
sun safety topic What's the best treatment for sunburn blisters?
Brian at Nebraska Health
August 23, 2016

According to the Mayo Clinic:
1) Avoid further sun exposure and 2) leave the blisters alone and try not to break them! Blisters -- which are filled with a protective body fluid that helps them to heal faster. But, if they do break, gently keep them clean with mild soap and water and apply antibacterial cream and and sterile gauze bandaging to prevent infection.

There is no way to undo the damage caused by a sunburn or speed the healing; the best treatment is to minimize discomfort and prevent dehydration: 1) drink extra water to help your body recover from the sun and heat, 2) minimize the discomfort with an anti-inflammatory pain reliever like aspirin*, naproxen or ibuprofen and apply an aloe or soy-based moisturizer or hydracortisone cream (but avoid petroliaum products or names that end in "caine" since they may cause irritation or an allergic reaction), 3) apply a cool, damp towel to the affected area, and 4) be sure to keep the affected skin clean. (* Aspirin should never be given to children under the age of 2 or any kids, even teenagers, recovering from the flu or chickenpox should never take aspirin because of Reye's syndrom concerns.)

While most sunburns and resulting blisters will heal themselves, be sure to see a doctor if the burn is very severe or if those blisters break and become red or begin swelling or oozing from infection.

June 4, 2013
sun safety topic My father was recently treated for precancerous spots on his face, which was a wakeup call for me. Thanks for these tips.
BB at Nebraska Health
June 4, 2013
Hi Tamara. Perhaps like you, I've underestimate just how dangerous excessive sun exposure can be. When researching and writing this article, I was shocked to learn that an estimated 50% of us with light-skinned will develop some form of skin cancer by age 65.

Regarding those precancerous spots you mentioned, they're not only a concern for older folks. They can show up already in a person's 20's and 30's -- especially if someone has light-colored skin, eyes and hair or freckles -- so we should all be watchful for them. And, we should be checking more than just our face, ears and neck since these lesions can also appear on forearms, legs and the back of hands. Precancerous lesions most often appear as scaly spots on the skin that just won't heal but they can also look like warts. Removal is a pretty quick and easy procedure at a dermatologist's office and is important since as many as 1 in 10 may develop into cancers.
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